With the fate of our nation firmly in the grasp of right-wing zealots, Vera Drake just might emerge as the right movie at the right time. Hints about America's future may theoretically be unearthed in Great Britain's past, or at least the past as catalogued by writer-director Mike Leigh in his latest gem. Leigh's films can often be tagged as mellow melodramas : works that illustrate humankind's emotional whiplashes without feeling the need to either sentimentalize or sensationalize them : and this recent Oscar nominee for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress follows suit. Imelda Staunton portrays the title character, a saintly housekeeper in 1950s England who performs abortions on the side. Vera views it strictly as a humanitarian gesture : she doesn't even accept payment for her services : but since the law doesn't share her benevolent outlook (abortions would remain illegal in that country for another decade), this frail woman suddenly finds herself Public Enemy Number One. Leigh's greatest asset as a storyteller is his honesty, his willingness to toss matters out into the open and let audience members draw their own conclusions. So while it's safe to say that Leigh stands behind Vera Drake, he also refuses to turn her into a martyr. Indeed, the movie is so subtle that it's possible pro-lifers might not find offense with its depictions: The fact that Vera in essence risks the happiness of her husband and children (who will be miserable and lost if she's put behind bars) will strike some as an example of misplaced priorities. Abortion has been a divisive issue for a long time now, and Vera Drake honors that struggle by refusing to cheapen the debate.
Like Michael Mann's Collateral, the French psychological thriller Red Lights views the expansive grid of nocturnal streets as the field on which a mousy individual may tap into his buried machismo and reinvent himself as a figure of masculine rage and potency. Collateral's hero (Jamie Foxx) was confined to the city streets; the protagonist (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) of Red Lights has the highways at his disposal, a paved jungle thick with holiday gridlock, automobile accidents and imposing police roadblocks. The gloomy, balding Antoine (Darroussin) embarks on a road trip with his beautiful, successful wife Helene (Carole Bouquet) with the sole purpose of picking up their children from camp; right off the bat, it's clear that the bloom has long faded from this marriage, and Antoine's decision to alternate between drinking and driving forces Helene to unexpectedly abandon the highway for the railroad track. Startled by her sudden departure, Antoine tries to track her down, but he's delayed in his pursuit by a hitchhiker (hulking Ben Affleck look-alike Vincent Deniard) who just might be the killer who recently escaped from a nearby prison. The link between the two men culminates in a woodland showdown straight out of James Dickey, yet the movie's real tension comes in its exploration of a marriage on the brink, and how an uninterrupted series of urgent phone calls can bring out the best in a man as effectively as any open display of brute strength.
Cross the artistic integrity of Shakespeare In Love with the bawdy behavior of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and you might come up with Stage Beauty, a movie that recognizes the poetry in both Shakespeare and Benny Hill. Set during the reign of King Charles II (Rupert Everett) in 17th century England, the film continues the recent trend of mixing and matching fact and fiction, with Billy Crudup cast as Ned Kynaston, the most celebrated actor during a period in which women were forbidden from performing on the stage. Making his mark solely in female parts : his latest triumph is portraying Desdemona in Othello : Ned finds his livelihood cut out from under him when the King issues a decree stating that, effective immediately, women are now allowed to act and men can only play male roles. So while Ned wallows in self-pity and sexual confusion (he only knows how to "act" feminine), his dresser (Claire Danes), who's long had her eye on the stage, suddenly finds herself regarded as the community's top new talent. Director Richard Eyre and scripter Jeffrey Hatcher (adapting his own play, Compleat Female Stage Beauty) fare best when they tackle the issue of gender identification while also debating its theatrical implications : "Where's the trick in that?" bellows Ned when learning that women will play women, hinting that the art comes from the mimicry rather than the shared experience between actor and role. They have less success in curtailing the piece's anachronistic tendencies.
The Rest Of The Spring Schedule:
Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (USA, 2004)
Schultze Gets the Blues (Germany, 2003)
Time of the Wolf (France, 2003)
Up and Down (Czech Republic, 2004)
Deserted Station (Iran, 2002)
In My Country (UK, 2004)
Tarnation (USA, 2004)
Valentin (Argentina, 2002)